The sense of place that relates human beings to their environment is under threat from the rising tide of placelessness which can result from potentially positive forces such as urban regeneration as well as negative ones such as incremental degradation. The concept of sense of place, and the need to protect and enhance special places, has underpinned UK conservation legislation and policy in the post-war era. In Northern Ireland, due to its distinctive settlement tradition, its troubled political circumstances and its centralised administrative system, a unique hierarchy of special places has evolved, involving areas of townscape and village character as well as conventional conservation areas. For the first time a comprehensive comparative survey of the townscape quality of most of these areas has been carried out in order to test the hypothesis that too many conservation area designations may devalue the conservation coinage. It also assesses the contribution that areas of townscape character can make in this situation, as potential conservation areas or as second-level local amenity designations. Its findings support the initial hypothesis: assessment of townscape quality on the basis of consistent criteria demonstrates a decline in the quality of more recent conservation area designations, and hence some devaluation of the coinage. However, the need for local discretion in the protection of local amenity supports the concept of areas of townscape and village character as an additional and distinct designation. This contradicts recent policy recommendations from the Northern Ireland Planning Commission and contains valuable lessons for conservation policy and practice in other parts of the UK.